By Collin Kelley
Charles McNair made a splash with his debut novel, Land O’ Goshen, a futuristic tale set in his native Alabama after the country falls under the tyrannical rule of fundamentalist Christians. It received a raft of good reviews and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
That was 19 years ago.
Over lunch at McNair’s favorite watering hole, Manuel’s Tavern, which is just a short walk from his home in Poncey-Highland, the author tells me what’s been happening in the intervening two decades and why he’s excited that his second novel, Pickett’s Charge, is already receiving early rave reviews.
To be honest, it doesn’t seem like McNair has been away. He’s been a constant presence on the literary scene in Atlanta, he’s the book editor for Paste magazine and you can hear him talking books on AM 1690. So, what took him so long to write Pickett’s Charge?
“Writing is not my favorite thing to do,” McNair says candidly. “It’s not that I dislike it, but writing is a solitary thing and I always feel the need to be with other people and be sociable.”
It will come as no surprise, then, that writing Pickett’s Charge took him 12 of those 19 years since his first book appeared. “There are thousands of pages in a box of chapters that went the wrong way or subplots that just didn’t quite fit,” McNair says. “The finished book was 529 pages, but I’ve cut it down to 360.”
Pickett’s Charge, which will be published this month by the University of West Alabama’s Livingston Press, is a “tall tale” about the last living Confederate soldier who, at 114-years-old embarks on an epic road trip North to kill the last remaining Union soldier. Along the way, Threadgill Pickett has run-ins with ghosts, two coal truck drivers building a time machine and discovers that he must reexamine his desire for valor and revenge.
Tom Junod at Esquire has lauded the book for its “indelible visions,” while award-winning author Charles Frazier, of Cold Mountain fame, said McNair’s book is a “genuine delight.” McNair says he is humbled and grateful for the words, and hopes it will help him ease back into author life.
The idea for Pickett’s Charge came from McNair’s late father, who often told a story about meeting an embittered Confederate soldier. Growing up in Alabama, McNair said it was hard to escape the feeling that the South had romanticized the “lost cause” of the Civil War. “You still see trucks with Confederate flags and slogans like ‘Forget Hell,’” he says. “Threadgill Pickett embodies a lot of that. He’s been nursing a great vengeance for an entire century.”
Threadgill is surely an anti-hero, but McNair sees him more in the vein of Don Quixote, who wanted to bring back a by-gone era and had a penchant for attacking windmills he believed were giant monsters.
McNair’s “day job” is in corporate communications, which meant most of the writing on Pickett’s Charge happened late at night. “I’d finish my work, go to dinner with friends or walk somewhere for a drink, and then come back and write from about 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. He’s keeping that same schedule as he works on his third novel, The Epicureans, about a billionaire “eating club” where the members meet once a year for an unusual feast.
McNair will be back at Manuel’s Tavern on Sept. 25 starting at 7 p.m. for a public launch party of Pickett’s Charge. After that, he’ll embark on a 15-stop regional book tour that will take him to Athens, Dallas, Austin, Charleston and back home to Alabama.
While McNair is justifiably excited about Pickett’s Charge, there’s also a postscript that he isn’t happy about: Land O’ Goshen is out of print. St. Martin’s Press returned the rights to McNair and he’s hoping that Pickett’s Charge will spur new interest in getting his celebrated debut back into the hands of readers.